Where does humanity stand in the year 2022? The first two decades of this century may be seen by future generations as a unique and paradoxical moment in human history when, having won the millennia-long battle against the ravages of poverty and disease, we lapsed into a profound anomie. Or they might see us, more sympathetically, as trapped between two forces — climate change and capitalist culture — so powerful that our response was to shuttle between being passive and being compulsive.
Let me explain. Between 2000 and 2022, anthropogenic climate change has become a firmly established fact of life — indeed, of human consciousness. As its disturbing origins in past human activity and its danger to the well-being of future generations have become apparent, so too have we learned what we need to do to stave off its worst consequences.
But if this much is clear, trying to do something about it is like trying to make the Earth spin from east to west. For the very processes we need to reform are, of course, also the engines of productivity, growth, prosperity and (apparently) progress. Further, despite the fact there has never been so much wealth or so many wealthy people in the world, much of the world’s poor still live in material and energy poverty.
That leaves the onus of behavioral change — a kind of moral transformation — squarely on that section of humanity which revels in the abundance of goods and services available in the world today. Could you and I, who are among the richest 20 percent in the world, cut back on our consumption so as to make some space for others to increase theirs and yet keep human emissions within safe limits?
I am sure we could. But, unfortunately, everything about our political and economic systems is set up to make us believe and behave otherwise. The default mindset of life under capitalism — particularly its modern strain called neoliberalism — is that there is nothing wrong with wanting ever newer and more expensive things as long as we can afford them.
Look around you for a moment. In modern consumer society, our every step is marked by some impulse or invitation to possess, some little frisson of instant gratification. No society anywhere before the beginning of the 20th century lived like this. One might rephrase Descartes for our time: “I buy, therefore I am.” Further, since our expenditure must necessarily be someone else’s income, we tell ourselves that we actually make the world a better place every time we buy another pair of shoes or trade in a car for the latest model.
And that’s the tug of war that plays itself out relentlessly in our lives, as one side of our age cries out “less,” and from the other side comes the answering cry “more.” Can we expect to bring our children up in such a universe — infected by a cognitive virus that the psychologist Oliver James has memorably called “affluenza” — and still expect that we will live with integrity to ourselves and to the planet?
Isn’t it paradoxical to realize that humanity has never known so much material abundance as it has in the last 50 years of its 200,000 years of existence, and yet so many of us feel we do not have enough? It is worth reflecting on the thought that our species somehow survived tens of thousands of years of scarcity, but has no psychological defense, apparently, against the seductions of abundance.
This is not to deny that so many human aspirations — well-being, security, self-respect, independence — do have their basis in material life. Growing up in an India where many poor people did not possess a pair of slippers, eat three meals a day or own a TV, I feel enormous pleasure today in the knowledge that millions have gained access to these items and their freedoms.
Conversely, I see a large transnational class of very well-off, usually well-educated people completely consumed — I use the word deliberately — by the never-ending desires artificially stimulated by advertising and the marketplace, presenting themselves as not much more than a collage of brands and measuring others by the same standard. This seems to me a strange transformation of freedom and intelligence into dependence and conformity.
Of course, wanting to live a better life is deeply ingrained in human nature. Otherwise, we would never have generated the incredible progress that has brought us to our present station. But just as being poor, historically, meant learning to live frugally so as to keep one’s balance, so too the enormous and increasingly accessible privilege of having wealth should make us think deeply about how and why we consume, even without the bogeyman of the climate crisis above our heads.
After all, as even the earliest thinkers in the history of economic thought — including Adam Smith, the high priest of capitalism — knew, having more does not always translate into being happier. This intuition is now solidly supported by empirical evidence, which shows that many people in the developing world, despite being hard-up, report being just as happy as those in the materially saturated societies of the West.
So what now? The answer, perhaps, is to try to be rich in the enjoyment of things, not in the accumulation of them. A pair of good shoes, lightly creased but also diligently polished once a month; a single blouse that lasts a decade instead of five that end up in a landfill in Africa or Asia; a meal cooked at home instead of a trip to McDonald’s — in deliberate gestures such as these lie our redemption from the virus of compulsive and unsustainable consumption.
Our ability to produce goods at our stage of history is so vast that it has led to the creation of an infinite number of wants to match it. But as climate change and our own better nature both tell us, if this is how millions of us are going to live, it will not be long before we make life permanently unlivable.
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